High Times Greats: Carolyn Cassady—Essential Beat Generation Writer, Artist, and Inspiration

Mrs. Beat. Carolyn Cassady, on her first times smoking “tea.”
High Times Greats: Carolyn Cassady
Carolyn and Neal Cassady (High Times/ Carolyn Cassady)

Carolyn Cassady (1923-2013), wife of Neal Cassady—the legendary beat-generation hero immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and later in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—explains her husband’s relationship to “tea” and how pot affected her.

Portions of this story are excerpted from her book, Off the Road, and were published in the November, 1994 issue of High Times. In honor of the anniversary of Carolyn Cassady’s birth on on April 28, we’re republishing it below.

Off The Road by Carolyn Cassady

My experiences in life with chemical substances that change one’s consciousness without the benefit of one’s own will began in my teens in the 1940s. At that time, alcohol was the accepted drug and considered right and proper—as it still is today along with car-exhaust fumes. Go figure.

In spite of my isolated existence from any “street” knowledge, films introduced me to the horrors of the “Devil’s Weed.” These films are now a delight to those who have discovered their inaccuracy. Although I had no notion of what it was all about, they made the intended impression on my innocent mind. So, when after a few forays with Benzedrine, Neal introduced me to marijuana—which he called “tea” and gradually became known as “pot”—my faith in him overcame these grim forebodings. Here is how it began:

He held the joint away from him while he applied a match to the twisted end and waited for the paper to burn off. Then he put it between parted lips and drew in short, noisy breaths without closing his lips, inhaling more deeply on each gasp until his lungs were fully expanded. He held his breath, becoming red in the face. When he could hold it no longer, he exhaled, very little smoke being expelled.

“You see? Keep it all in. Now. You noticed I took in as much air as smoke? Too strong otherwise, burns your throat too much and you lose some—cooooo, myyyy…this is good shit…oh, I beg your pardon, darling…excellent product this, yas indeeed.” His eyes had turned quite pink as his gaze wandered upward. “Ah, but the point is, mustn’t waste any, see, get all you get, dig? Now, you try. Prepare yourself for the awakening of your latent mind and senses you never even knew, ho, hooo.”

I did my best to imitate him, but had only inhaled the first weak puff when the unexpected searing of my throat made me cough. He patted my back. “Here, here, never you mind, everybody does that the first time.” Neal was growling through his clenched teeth and held breath, having frantically retrieved the joint from me and puffed rapidly to keep it lit.

Nodding urgently, he thrust it at me again. This time I was more careful and managed to get some smoke and hold it in. My first sensation was a sort of cool feeling inside my chest. There was a pungent, earthy tang to the taste and a generally expanding feeling of wholeness throughout my body.

When I’d had another couple of respectable puffs, he decided that was enough for a beginner. Everything he had described proved true, my favorite part being the sense of extended time.

Although I let Neal persuade me to indulge several more times, I was always paranoid, unable to overcome the fear of the illegality. Also, I was haunted by a vague intuition that there was more wrong with this method of mind enhancement than I could explain. But I tried to go along with his analysis that it was harmless.

One night I declined to join him, Jack Kerouac and a seaman friend, but just observed them as they rolled joint after joint. It appeared to me that what they thought was exceptional brilliance and wit was all rather dumb. This was the pot talking, of course, and I found them extremely boring.

Inadvertently, I was compelled to participate in its use when I accompanied Jack to a party. The party was in a private apartment, and there were four or five other couples. The hosts were Jordan Belson, a talented artist and filmmaker, and his wife, Jane, and the group had been invited especially to view Jordan’s latest film.

Before the film was shown, I struck up a conversation with an art student and was intent on listening to her, not noticing that two joints of marijuana had been lit and were being passed down both sides of the group seated in a semicircle before the screen. Each cigarette ended with me before being passed back up. So as not to seem prudish, I had been absentmindedly taking puffs as each joint was handed me, not realizing I was getting twice as much as anyone else.

Soon the film was shown, the first of its kind I’d ever seen, and I was fascinated and delighted. Jordan had animated line drawings and paint splotches to the music of a mambo. It had everything: humor, pathos, despair, excitement, personalities and character types, and I didn’t want it to end.

When it did and the lights were turned on again, I found myself unable to move a muscle. I was absolutely rigid. “Stoned” came to mind—so that’s what it meant. But what was I to do? Rising panic made me icy cold as well. It seemed an eon before Jack turned to me and said something. He put his hand on my arm and his touch broke the spell. He turned away again, apparently not having noticed anything unusual about me.

Could it be? I thought everyone in the room must be conscious of my helpless condition. I wanted to tell Jack, but now I was blocked again, couldn’t think what to say, and the panic returned.

The party was breaking up. Jack and the others were moving about the room, collecting coats and making farewells. I sat like a rock. Somebody was bound to notice, yet the nice girl I’d conversed with accepted my smile as sufficient answer to whatever she’d said to me. With extreme effort I found I could lean forward slightly, but I didn’t dare attempt to stand. Jack came forward to me with my coat and held out his hand. When I saw I could reach for his in return and, with his touch, was able to rise, relief swept over me. I was mobile, I was OK.

Not quite. “Jordan wants to know if we can drive him over to Columbus Avenue, and I told him it’s right on our way, all right?” I heard what Jack said, and it sounded simple, but drive! I hadn’t thought of that—how could I ever drive? But I must go on, and I said, “Of course,” while climbing into my coat, my mind awhirl. Holding onto Jack’s arm I got to the door and down the stairway, the bright light in the stairwell illuminating brilliantly colored paintings on the wall and making me feel as if I were floating in a surrealistic fantasy. Jack behaved as though I were perfectly normal.

When we reached the car at last, I was about to give up and confess all to Jack and Jordan, when into my mind came Neal’s original instructions on my initiation into tea: “Remember, you can always do anything you have to do.” I grasped these words, repeating them again and again as I got in and started the car.

I hadn’t a clue as to what the men were discussing, but, sure enough, I drove Jordan where he wished to go, and right on through the traffic, the busy streets and up the hill to home. I even parked with no greater difficulty than usual. I thanked God or whatever was responsible, but also resolved that I’d had my last tea party.

For Neal, pot became a necessity and eventually an addiction, at least psychologically. I’m not sure what his attraction was for this drug, because his mind already worked on so many different levels. Perhaps it was because his chief motive in life was always to enhance it. What it actually did for him we’ll never know, but he soon found he hadn’t the patience to take life step by step and became extremely irritable when deprived of his constant dosage. He later tried all manner of drugs, the final result being an inability to function without this crutch. In the end, he was destroyed by these “enhancing” drugs.

Now, at my ripe old age of 71, after all those years of observation and analysis of various users, I am convinced that there are therapeutic properties in marijuana and that it’s far less harmful to abuse than alcohol. The key word is “abuse.” For it is my belief that everything natural on the planet is good for us—if used in moderation and for specific purposes. Everything. Ah, but there’s the rub—mankind’s struggle with “moderation.”

It is my belief that, when evolving our consciousness and transcending our animal nature, we must do so consciously, using our own free will and choice. For me, the trouble with hallucinogens is that I resent not being in control—I don’t want to be acted upon. I want to be boss and know what’s coming down.

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